★ Ebook Q & A

M’colleague Matt F W Curran recently sent me some questions about my adventures in the ebook trade. I thought my answers might be useful to others, so I’ve posted them here.

Did you e-publish via an e-publisher?

No, I decided that it would be best to control the process myself. One of the more frustrating parts of being an author is being unable to correct typos in the final book, blurb, and so on. Amazon makes this trivial. My research prior to going it alone also demonstrated that many ebooks published on an author’s behalf were horrendously formatted, presumably because the job was given lower priority and fewer resources than the more prestigious print edition.

If so, what is their commission and would you do it again?

I’ve left this question in because I did, a few months back, use the online service Smashwords. This service takes your book (formatted in Word – alarm bells ringing yet?) and spits it out to multiple online retailers, including Barnes and Noble. I used this because it was the only way I could get my book onto iBooks. Smashwords wanted the documented formatted according to some unusual conventions. I hired a nice American lady to do this for me. She trades under the name MediaWorx. I paid her $45 and she did a flawless job. Ultimately, it was for nothing, because Smashwords uses a generic tool to convert your Word document into different versions for the online services, and the output is embarrassingly cruddy. Fortunately, I’ve only sold about 4 copies via Smashwords. The vast majority of my sales have been through Amazon.

If you didn’t e-publish via an e-publisher and did it wholly alone, has it been easy?

I’ll interpret that ‘easy’ as a relative term. Yes, it was very easy. When I was published by a small press, I had to do all my own marketing. I had to wait months for royalty cheques that never came; had no clue where review copies had been sent; had to put up with a dodgy cover; had all kinds of issues with distribution; had to turn up in person and make myself a nuisance on a shop-by-shop basis to get word out.

And do you think there are any benefits to being published via an independent e-publisher regardless of the sacrifice in terms of profits? In other words would it add relevance or legitimacy to your work to be seen to be published independently rather than self-published?

My first response is a misinterpretation of your question, which I’ve left in. The question I thought I read was: “Are there advantages to being traditionally published?”

The simple answer is “Yes”. I grew up in an era where writers still used typewriters and my dreams of success (that is, selling a book to somebody) were all wrapped up in weighty, paper manuscripts, lunch meetings with agents, and seeing myself on the shelf of a bookshop. I still want that and I can’t help it. The desire, however, is irrational. I’m immeasurably better off now.

And now for the answer to your actual question:

There could certainly be benefits in terms of time-saving, but I think all the tools you need for a good book are at your disposal. Hire your own editor. I can suggest Clare Christian or Olivia Wood. Hire a cover designer, such as Emma Barnes. The trickier bit is the layout of your book, but you can probably hire someone to do that too. I’m not whether it’s a good use of money to hire a middle man (the ‘publisher’ again) to do this for you.

How much do cover-designs cost?

I’ve got three covers. The first, Deja Vu, was a stock photo from iStockPhoto.com, which I bought for about £50 and worked into my own design. Flashback was designed professionally by Emma Barnes for £699.13 (though I’ve since started using another design based on an iStockPhoto vector, which works better as a thumbnail; I’ll use the Barnes design for a paperback). The cover for my romantic comedy Proper Job is a combination of two vector graphics, totalling about £80, which I put together in my own design.

Are you making enough money for it to be a financially-worthwhile endeavour (of course, simply being read is worthwhile anyway, but for the extra effort and time put it to get it out there – was it worthwhile?).

In a word, yes. My current income from the books since March is £2,072.11 and $222. Outgoings are £1,268.40. Profit about £800 before tax. That’s not huge, but the initial costs are all fixed.

How did you come to the price point of the two books? I note that Flashback changed to a cheaper price – did that help?

I wanted the books to be free. (I’m lucky enough to have a full time job as an academic, so I was prepared to pay for the covers and editing myself.) Since that wasn’t straightforward, I made them as cheap as possible. This took a little nerve, I must admit, particularly when I saw the initial sales take off, but it’s important to remember that I’m in a position where nobody knows who I am. I want as many people to read my books as possible. Meanwhile, I’ll be making a brand of my name if I’m any good. There is room for increasing the price later on, but for now it’s as well to remember that the market is not demanding my books at all. They’re buying them on a ‘Why not?’ basis. If I increased the price significantly (say, into the 70% royalty rate, which needs a sale price of £1.70, I think), it’s very likely that I would flatten my sales.

Secondly, I’m in it for the long haul.

As for the price of Flashback, I did increase that briefly to £1.70. That was, in retrospect, probably an irrational move motivated by the price of its cover. I wasn’t sure at the time that the sales profile of Deja Vu would remain the same. Turns out it did. When Flashback earned back the cost of its cover, I dropped its price. The sales correlated very closely with price.

Postcards from the Edge (of St Petersburg)

In 2008, I wrote an entry on this blog entitled The End.

About a year and a half ago, I finished the second Saskia Brandt novel, Flashback. My thoughts for the third one centred around Imperial Russia. I was particularly interested in placing Saskia – who derives her advantages from an almost direct connection between her nervous system and the Internet – in a situation where she could have no real advantage beyond her knowledge of the future.

I don’t remember much about the experience of writing that book, The Amber Rooms, so it’s interesting to continue reading this entry.

[The Amber Rooms] was a pleasure to write. I wanted to produce something that reminded me of Alistair MacLean, where the story’s structure reflects a heist and the reader not entirely informed about how much the protagonist knows. To help get this right, I plotted much of the novel in advance.

I think about my life at that point. In short: Publishers weren’t buying my books; I felt redundant as a writer; I knew I would soon abandon my goal of writing books. That abandonment – that realisation of the toxicity of my situation – was brief. I am writing again. However, I considered The Amber Rooms to be a last waltz. The manuscript would remain on my computer, keeping the unpublished Flashback company, while I turned my back on the one thing I do very well: write.

The point of writing a book, I suppose, is to get it published. I’m not confident that it will be picked up by a publisher – not because I lack confidence in the book, but because the second book hasn’t found a publisher yet. The third book isn’t likely to shift if the second one hasn’t.

And:

Do I think I deserve to be published? No. That’s too strong. I mean this: I don’t write books so I can put them in a drawer.

Let me turn back to an earlier entry. This is dated 1st November, 2007, five days before my birthday:

At the moment, I have some ideas that refuse to tessellate. I hope my gentle readers won’t be offended if I don’t go into them in too much detail. Suffice it to say that I’m reading some excellent oral histories of women anarchists in 1870s Russia. An intriguing architectural folly known as the Amber Room will feature.

I have stood in the Amber Room. The Russian government would prefer visitors not to take pictures there, so I did not. But I stood within it. I studied its panels and frowned into its mirrors. I closed my eyes and breathed in; it did not smell of pine, which was unexpected. The moment I remember most clearly is my girlfriend looking at me as though she loved me. So we made it to the Amber Room. This strange thing I do – fiction – has not been quite destroyed by my failure to convince a traditional publisher to take a chance on it.

I tried to imagine Saskia Brandt reflected in one of those tall mirrors between the amber panels.

I made it to the end point of the creative process for Flashback. That is, I got the book to readers.

Yesterday, someone in America called Suki read Flashback and wrote:

Hocking does not make a misstep in this beautifully constructed novel, and when his talent for plot meets his talent for prose, the result is extraordinary. I look forward to the next Saskia Brandt adventure!

On the 17th March, 2008, I wrote:

So what is it? What’s the story, Saskia? Why are you standing on the threshold of the Amber Room, and what does it have to do with going home?

The story is…well, it’s another adventure. All stories are adventures. And going home.

St Petersburg
Sailing into St Petersburg via the Gulf of Finland – 6.30 a.m., 23rd August 2011

Brass Tacks on Déjà Vu and Flashback

Did I mention that I’ve been gate-crashing Scott Pack’s blog with some stats on my how well my books are selling?

Your friend and mine, Scott, left me a message at our usual dead drop – behind the third cervical vertebra of the diplodocus in the foyer of the Natural History Museum. In somewhat breathless prose, he asked that I furnish readers with the latest episode in my ebook adventure before they actually explode with curiosity.

I didn’t?

Say no more: it’s over here.